How Gondolas Work


Clearly gondolas offer a plush ride through Venice. See more pictures of Italy.
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On Sept. 12, 1846, the English poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett eloped, fleeing London and Barrett's tyrannical father who forbid her to marry. Where does a couple go when they're young, in love and on the lam? In the Browning's case, it was Italy. They went first to Pisa, then to a tiny bohemian apartment in Florence and eventually to the town of Asolo, just outside Venice. There, Robert Browning wrote the poem "In a Gondola," which details, what else, but kissing: "Kiss me as if you made believe / You were not sure ... Kiss me as if you'd enter'd gay / My heart at some noonday."

But Browning certainly wasn't the first or the last to dream of smooching his beloved aboard a gondola. Since Italian gentry first drifted the city's canals during the Renaissance, the gondola has been both a symbol of Venice and of the romance that is inextricably linked with the city. The love affair of 19th-century writers George Sand and Alfred de Musset played out in Venice; there's even record of a lovers' quarrel that included a gondola ride. The same can be said for actress Eleonora Duse and poet and playwright Gabriele d'Annuzio's late 19th-century Venetian affair.

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And don't ever let it be said that the famous Greek soprano Maria Callas struggled to make an entrance. When meeting her husband-to-be, Aristotle Onassis, for the first time, she made sure to arrive fashionably late to the Palazzo Castelbarco via gondola [source: Edwards].

The gondola is the ultimate in romance. If you want to partake of this romance, or at least be able to talk intelligently enough about it to imply that you could, you need to know the ins and outs of gondola culture. How and when did the gondola begin?

The History of Gondolas

The city of Venice lays a net of ornate and cosmopolitan architecture across 117 small islands that sit in an otherwise unremarkable saltwater lagoon in northeast Italy -- where the rear, high ankle of Italy's boot shape touches the Adriatic Sea. Crusades launched from Venice in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, and it was a point of entry for silks and spice coming from the East to Europe.

This is to say that the history of Venice is the history of its water. It's a city built not so much at the edge of the ocean as on top of it, and rather than flowing around the city, water flows through it. And so instead of a traditional city's taxis, Venice developed water taxis -- gondolas.

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In 1094, the Doge Vitale Faliero, whose carved image sits next to the high altar of St. Mark's Basilica, gave the people of Venice a handful of gondolas, nominally to ease travel around the city, but also because he wanted to prevent a popular revolt of the kind that had put him into power in 1084. Gondolas soon caught on, though not among the peasants, as was his intent. Instead, gondolas quickly became the transportation of choice for Venice's upper crust.

In the late 15th century and early 16th century, gondolas in nearly their modern form appeared in paintings by artists Gentile Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio and Giovani Mansuetti. And by the end of the Italian Renaissance in the 17th century, about 9,000 gondolas floated through the city's canals, carrying moneyed passengers about their everyday business.

By 1633, Italian extravagance had gotten out of line, according to the Venetian government, and a "sumptuary" law was enacted requiring all gondolas to be painted black. That is, all gondolas except for the boats owned by the government -- these were exempt and thus able to outshine the boats of private citizens.

The post-Renaissance gondola was optimized for travel, with a low passenger cabin called a felze providing protection from the elements. But in the 20th century, as tourism supplanted transportation as the gondola's reason for being, the felze gave way to the awning, and then in the 1960s to the open boat we know today -- trading the privacy valued by earlier, noble travelers for an unobstructed view.

Today, there are about 400 licensed gondoliers ready to take you and yours for the ride of your lives.

Anatomy of a Gondola

Not just anyone can slap together marine plywood into the shape of a mini Viking longboat, call it a gondola and start transporting wide-eyed tourists. Instead, the manufacture of Venice's gondolas is regulated by hundreds of years of history, now written into law.

First and foremost, its design is based on function. A flat bottom allows a gondola to skim the canals only centimeters deep, and the use of a paddle (not a pole!) allows gondoliers to propel the boats in deeper water. Unfortunately, the traditional, flat-bottomed design also makes the gondola a bit tippy. Gondolas have a hard time alongside the large wakes of modern motorboats on the Grand Canal, a canal that flows like a reverse 'S' from north to south through the center of the city. A new gondola can cost 20,000 Euros or more, and while gondoliers are experts in their trade, a lightly bumpy ride isn't uncommon.

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According to the craftsmen of the Domenico Tramontin e Figli boatyard, founded in 1884, traditionally the gondola is constructed from eight kinds of wood: solid oak for the sides, lightweight fir for the bottom, malleable cherry for the thwarts, larch for water resistance, bendable walnut for the frame, linden for reinforcement, mahogany for trim, and elm to bend alongside the walnut [source: Tramontingoldole.it]. These eight woods are used to sculpt the 280 interlocking parts that fit together like model pieces to form a gondola.

Just two metal pieces complement these woods. The ferro (for "iron") is the curving metal piece that sits at the gondola's bow. It acts as a counterweight to the gondolier who rows from the stern, which helps to keep the gondola's flat bottom level in the water. The ferro also keeps the gondola's bow free of dings and dents. The other metal piece, the risso, is an ornamental piece whose design is influenced by the shape of a seahorse, and which sits near the gondolier at the stern.

Also in service of keeping the flat bottom of the gondola flat in the water, the boat is asymmetrical -- the port side is 9 inches (23 centimeters) wider than the starboard [source: Britannica]. This, plus a slightly higher portside wall, balances the weight of the gondolier, who rows from starboard.

Also important to traditional gondola design is the forcola, or oarlock. Unlike the circle-on-a-stick oarlock of most rowboats, the forcola is a stylized curve of cured walnut wood, bent like a boomerang and notched to offer different nooks in which to place the oar for different kinds of rowing. The forcola is attached to the stern of the boat, where the gondolier stands to row. We'll discuss how the gondolier uses the forcola to row on the next page.

This design is a triumph of naval efficiency -- an Italian study showed that the amount of energy a gondolier expends to paddle himself and two passengers is equal to the energy expended by one person walking the same speed [source: Capelli, et al].

Venetian Gondoliers

Today's gondoliers wear striped shirts.
Today's gondoliers wear striped shirts.
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Gondoliers are more than taxi drivers. It's said that because of their constant proximity to noble passengers, gondoliers knew anything and everything about the ancient city of Venice, especially the secrets of the city's illicit affairs, which frequently took place aboard these romance-inducing rides.

After the sumptuary law of 1633, gondoliers were required to wear black clothing to match their black gondolas. But after World War II, gondoliers started wearing the striped shirts many of us picture today. These gondoliers are licensed by a guild that requires a stringent comprehensive exam -- only three or four new licenses are issued each year, and traditionally, these licenses are passed down from father to son through a family, with the father holding the position until the son can pass the exam. Despite many previous applications, it was only in 2010 that the guild licensed its first female Venetian gondolier. In fact, the tradition of gondolier families is so strong that the profession has spawned its own dialect, a mixture of Italian, Spanish and Arabic, which is still spoken by many gondoliers [source: UNESCO].

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Though tourists often envision a gondolier singing to them, that's not how reality plays out. Travel writer Gene Openshaw recalls that when his mother asked if their gondolier would sing, the gondolier replied, "Madame, there are the lovers and there are the singers. I do not sing" [source: RickSteves.com]. If you prefer music, you'll have to hire a singer separately, usually with an accordion accompanist.

The gondolier rows and steers from the starboard side of the stern with one long oar, set into the forcola. Depending on the maneuver, the gondolier might set the oar low in the forcola, almost against the boat's gunwhale (for starting out), in the forcola's highest c-shaped notch (for normal forward rowing), into the forcola's elbow (backward rowing), or might brace the oar against the body of the forcola to stop.

While a rowboat with one oar is more a merry-go-round than a mode of transportation, the asymmetry of the gondola helps to keep the craft pointed straight. Also, the gondolier counteracts the boat's spin by ending each stroke with a push in the shape of a 'J' or 'C,' like paddling a canoe.

Gondolas and Tourism

By far the most common modern use of Venetian gondolas is for tourism. But infrequently, visitors to the city may see the boats used for other purposes, including weddings, funerals, pageants and even races. For the most part, the gondola is a special occasion boat, in no small part due to the current cost of a ride, which runs in the neighborhood of 80 Euros for a 40-minute cruise (glasses, but not wine, usually included), though cheaper deals are available for the creative and stingy [source: CapisaniHotel.it].

Is this overpriced? Well, the answer to that question puts us in the shifty realm of behavioral economics, but suffice to say that it wouldn't cost this much if people weren't willing to pay it. And really, how can you go to Venice and not ride a gondola?

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Hiring a gondola isn't difficult -- like cabs, they wait for fares in most of the main tourist areas. Some offer guided historical tours of the city, and some simply offer a quiet ride. The cardinal rule of booking a gondola is to negotiate what you're getting out of the ride and for what price before you step into the boat. If you want a better guide or are disinclined to haggle, consider booking a trip through your hotel or through one of the many established vendors.

Inexperienced tourists choose a choppy ride up the visitor-choked Grand Canal. More savvy visitors opt for a ride into the tight canals that crisscross the city, likely with the route chosen by the gondolier.

About 15 million tourists a year visit Venice, and the vast majority of them visit during the summer months [source: BBC]. If you choose to visit in the peak season, book ahead or prepare to compete for a ride. If you plan to visit in the off-season, you may haggle your way to a reduced rate. There's no proper attire for riding a gondola, but one popular booking sites recommends against high heels -- "especially for guys" [source: GondolaMan.com]. For more on Venice and travel, visit the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Edwards, Anne. "Maria Callas: An Intimate Biography." St. Martin's Griffin: New York. 2001.
  • Tramontin, Roberto. "The Tramontin Gondola." (Sept. 29, 2011) http://www.tramontingondole.it/ing-gondola.htm
  • "Gondola." Encyclopedia Britannica.2011. (Sept. 29, 2011) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/238383/gondola
  • Capelli, C., et al. "Energy Cost and Efficiency of Sculling a Venetian Gondola." European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. Sept. 3, 1989. (Sept. 29, 2011) http://www.springerlink.com/content/x0l2r18500824382/
  • "Gondolas in Venice: Prices of a Gondola Ride." Capisani Hotel. 2011. (Sept. 29, 2011). http://www.capisanihotel.it/venice_the_city/gondolas_in_venice__prices_of_gondola_ride__rates_gondola_ride.html
  • Duff, Mark. "Venice Launches Tourist Website." BBC News. Feb. 1, 2009. (Sept. 29, 2011) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7863349.stm
  • Gillette, Arthur. "The Gondola of Venice; Floating Symbol of a City." UNESCO Courier. November 1988. (Sept. 29, 2011). http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1310/is_1988_Nov/ai_7016824/pg_2/
  • Openshaw, Gene. "The Gondolas of Venice." Rick Steves' Europe. (Sept. 29, 2011) http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/destinations/italy/gondolas.htm
  • "Gondola Ride FAQs." GondolaMan.com. (Sept. 29, 2011) http://www.gondolaman.com/FAQs.php
  • Machan, Theresa. "Me and my travels." The UK Observer. May 16, 2009. (Sept. 29, 2011) http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2009/may/16/my-travels-giovanni-giudice-gondolier